Between last week’s Holly and this one, all doubt has been drained from his body and he sits in this Vienna strip club, draining glass after glass of whiskey to fill the void that Harry’s guilt has left inside him. Harry is definitely a criminal, and now Holly–suddenly forced to be a grownup–must reevaluate his friendship, and indeed his entire reason for staying here in Vienna. If we see Holly as a truly dynamic character, as I think we will by the end of the film, then we can watch his progression along a spectrum that has Harry and Calloway as its poles. While Harry wandered into this city with much of the do-as-he-please bravado of the outlaw, Harry Lime, he is now being quickly slid toward the opposite end of the scale. Calloway’s cold and calculated evidentiary files have swung Holly over to his end of the spectrum, and now like Calloway–and unlike Harry who brought him here in the first place–Holly is having second thoughts about staying in this city. On his way out of the major’s office, before he wanders into this house of ill repute, Holly asks Sergeant Paine for that plane ticket back to the states that he was promised long ago.
It seems that Holly might be headed home, where things are safer and he has family and friends (we can assume) to get back to. But as he sits in this strip club, his gaze flits between his drinks and the three groups in front of him. As he drinks up his remorse and tries to face up to these new truths, his gaze plays between a shirtless dancer in front of a jazz band, a line of young women who all seem to be eying him romantically from the bar, and an old Viennese flower-seller peddling her wares for romantics like him. Knocking back the last of his whiskey, our Holly, ever the romantic, brushes past the flirtation sitting at the bar and the lust dancing in front of the band and buys out the entire supply of flowers before leaving the bar for Anna’s apartment. Holly has chosen love over all else, and although he may think he is leaving on the next plane, we know better. Anna is still in danger of being deported, and even without Harry’s innocence left to prove, Holly still can’t leave Vienna without trying his hand at being Anna’s knight in shining armor. As he leaves the bar and the carnal pleasures it offers, he all but pushes a small boy from a window and mutters “the things I do for love:”
What is perhaps even more interesting to consider than Holly’s conventional love story, is the series of thoughts that lead Holly to abandon his best friend entirely. As we have discussed before, The Third Man is a war story and though the fighting may indeed be over, Vienna is still a wartime city. Calloway, a Major in the British military, is acting as our main conduit of justice, and nothing says martial law more than military leaders in positions of authority. Indeed, when this film was in theaters, the United States was under its own form of military rule, with Harry Truman who led his batallion through German forces without losing a single man and rose to the rank of Colonel, before rising to the rank of Commander in Chief. American military personnel in the white house would continue all the way up until Clinton’s presidency in 1993, with Eisenhower (a five star general in the Army), Kennedy (a lieutenant in the Navy), Johnson (a lieutenant commander in the Navy), Nixon (a lieutenant commander in the Navy), Ford (a lieutenant commander in the Navy), Carter (a lieutenant in the Navy), Reagan (a captain in the Army), and Bush (a lieutenant in the Navy). So, for the entire length of the cold War, the United States was led by a military (white) man, but nonetheless, Vienna’s martial rule is even a bit more immediate. War times can do much to transform the world around them and the truth and untruth of what might exist in that world, that I am surprised that Holly is so trusting of the facts he is presented. In Chris Marker’s lyrical 1983 film, Sans Soleil, he promises us to only show images of war in an alternate universe he refers to as “The Zone.” Of this, Reverse Shot critic Andrew Tracy writes:
“in Sans Soleil “the Zone,” his friend’s image device which renders the political struggles of the Sixties as abstract images of colored electronic movement, creating an impression of struggle, an emblem which Marker says is “more honest” than the traps of context and explanation. Material and metaphor: the Zone is both an active transformation and intervention into the image and a representation of the operations of time—a relentless process to which Marker blissfully consigns his own images at the end of the film.”
But Holly’s mind has not been opened to these possibilities. As his own series of movements and lights, magic lantern shows and documents, parade their way across his vision, all he can sense and all he can understand is those very traps of context and explanation. This is a war city, and like anywhere at war, Holly should know that this Vienna exists in The Zone, a realm beyond the reach of such connotations. To put it another way, the truth that exists in war cannot be the same truth that exists outside of it. As Tim O’Brien put it in his remarkable collection of stories, The Things They Carried:
“You can tell a true war story by the questions you ask. Somebody tells a story, let’s say, and afterward you ask, “Is it true?” and if the answer matters, you’ve got your answer.
For example, we’ve all heard this one. Four guys go down a trail. A grenade sails out. One guy jumps on it and takes the blast and saves his three buddies.
Is it true?
The answer matters.
You’d feel cheated if it never happened. Without the grounding reality, it’s just a trite bit of puffery, pure Hollywood, untrue in the way all such stories are untrue. Yet even if it did happen–and maybe it did, anything’s possible–even then you know it can’t be true because a true war story can’t depend on that kind of truth. Absolute occurrence is irrelevant. A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth. For example: Four guys go down a trail. A grenade sails out. One guy jumps on it and takes the blase, but it’s a killer grenade and everybody dies anyway. Before they die, though, one of the dead guys says, “The fuck you do that for?” and the jumper says, “Story of my life, man,” and the other guy starts to smile but he’s dead.
That’s a true story that never happened (O’Brien, The Things They Carried, Penguin, 1990, pg. 89-90).”
Our dear Holly, though, takes these war stories for their pedestrian truth value, perhaps because he has spent his whole life imaging wars (cowboys vs. indians) and he cannot discern the fictional war truth from the real war truth from the day-to-day truth. Were Holly himself more privy to this information, he might be less likely to dive into his depression and acceptance. Holly should remember those words of another cop, in the Coen Brothers’ 2007 No Country For Old Men, “Well… uh… a true story? I couldn’t swear to every detail but it’s certainly true that it is a story. ” Of course a real dive into the complex issues of truth and war is much too large a subject for this short post, but today I’ll leave you with yet another cinematic meditation on that very issue, from the 1992 Rob Reiner film, A Few Good Men:
Over the absolute length of one year — two times per week — Still Dots will grab a frame every 62 seconds of Carol Reed’s The Third Man. This project will run until December 2012, when we finish at second 6324. For a complete archive of the project, click here. For an introduction to the project, click here.